If you’re a baseball exec and a Tanner Rainey comes walking in off the street, you keep him. Give him a belted uniform, a glove and a handshake, and watch in awe as his mid 20’s arm fires 100 mph heater after 100 mph heater, sometimes hitting the barn at which he’s aiming.
You can never have too many pitching prospects, really, since there’s no such thing as a pitching prospect and all. So, if you stumble across one - even one whose control problems make it nearly impossible to succeed at the big league level - you keep him, since you never know which Rainey might morph into what we saw from, say, Robert Stephenson so far this season (prior to yesterday).
Those types of guys don’t exactly grow on trees, of course, but in today’s era of fireballers galore, they do tend to exist up and down every system in the game. Throwing 95, 96, 97 mph fastballs anymore with nary an additional perk to your repertoire barely cuts it, let alone if locating it is an impossibility. And by a certain age, if they haven’t managed to figure out the part of pitching outside throw the hell out of it, there simply isn’t a whole lot of incentive to seek them out. While the idea of hoarding them when the chance presents itself is right and well and good, giving up anything of reasonable value to go acquire one lone lottery ticket probably isn’t the wisest strategy in the books.
This is certainly not to pick particularly on the specific skill set of Rainey, the former 2nd round pick of the Cincinnati Reds who, at 26, sports a 6.0 BB/9 and 1.56 WHIP for AAA Fresno in the Washington Nationals organization alongside his typically strong strikeout numbers. You could replace him with Ariel Hernandez, the current version of Carson Fulmer, or dozens of other names littering baseball rosters.
Rainey, though, gets picked on here for one pertinent reason: he’s all it cost for the Cincinnati Reds to acquire Tanner Roark this past winter. Roark, the durable mid-rotation starter who occasionally sports numbers that make you say ‘huh, didn’t realize he’d pitched that decently.’ For one full season of Tanner Roark, the Reds sent Rainey to the Nationals, agreeing to pay Roark’s final wages of the arbitration process in 2019. And for what it’s worth, Roark has been precisely what was advertised on the back of his baseball card so far, his 3.51 ERA in-line with his career 3.59 mark, his K/9, WHIP, and FIP all within circling distance of his career numbers as well.
As the question that serves as this headline shows, though, this isn’t an article that’s supposed to be dedicated solely to two Tanners. Should the Cincinnati Reds really chase a .500 season does certainly relate to Roark, in particular, and the theoretical Rainey here, however.
At this juncture of the Reds season, there probably isn’t a more obvious trade piece than Roark, who will be a free agent at the end of this, his age 32 season. Unlike Luis Castillo, he’s no mid-20’s budding star. Unlike Sonny Gray, he hasn’t been signed to an extension. Like Castillo and Gray, he’s on a team that’s hovering in last place yet again, albeit one that has a laundry list of players who don’t figure into the long-term plans of this franchise given their contract status. With Alex Wood presumably healthy at some point down the road, the likes of Tony Santillan and Lucas Sims pitching reasonably well in the upper minors, and the long ascribed-to notion that teams inching towards the playoffs could always use a veteran arm, the idea of shipping Roark out to a contender at some point in the next two months appears to make some sense.
That brings us back to Rainey, though. Rainey is what it cost to acquire a full season of Roark, and we just walked through how low his relative value truly is. Assuming there’s not a plague of injuries to the star starters on every pennant-chasing team out there, basic math suggests that less than a full season of Roark should cost less than a full season, meaning the asking price the Reds could place on him at this juncture can’t be too significantly different than Tanner Rainey. And for as tantalizing as Sims’ K/9 numbers are for Louisville, Roark is obviously the more proven, serviceable pitcher at this juncture of the 2019 season for the Reds.
In other words, if there’s no real market for a decent return by trading the player who, at this very moment, appears to be the best trade chip on the roster, why not just keep him and try to actually win some games?
The Roark scenario is exacerbated by the rest of the current Reds roster, mind you. The way the front office went about augmenting the 2019 vintage was a particularly keen one, adding a boatload of veterans in their final season under contract and not really having to give up any of the key pieces of the future in the process. In essence, their strategy was spend money to get better for 2019, but don’t do anything to derail the long-term process of the rebuild. In reality, holding on to some of these guys for the 60-some games they’ll play after the July 31st trade deadline doesn’t put a dent in that strategy at all, since as mentioned in the Roark scenario, they aren’t missing out on adding huge prospect pieces for the future since those simply aren’t in the cards as the return for trading some of these guys.
Wood, I mentioned, falls into that category not because of his talent, but because of his bad back preventing him from showing he’s healthy for long enough prior to the deadline. Similarly, Scooter Gennett won’t have a ton of time to show he’s healthy once he returns, and we all already saw how depressed the market for 2B only players was last winter in free agency. Jose Iglesias, while dazzling at SS and posting career-best offensive numbers so far, was such an afterthought just three months ago that the Reds were able to nab him on a minor-league contract. Even Yasiel Puig, easily the highest-profile addition from the winter, probably doesn’t have a gargantuan amount of trade value at the moment given his awful start to the season (and the shoulder ding he picked up just yesterday isn’t going to miraculously solve that, either).
The only thing that the Reds could truly gain by folding and dumping that crew at the deadline would be cold, hard cash. Shedding the last 40% of the salaries due to those folks would absolutely save the Reds money, even if they were forced to chip in some just to get everyone out the door. At last check, the players who are hitting free agency after this season were making some $63-65 million in total this season as part of the Reds “record” payroll, and the sooner that money comes off the books, the sooner - in theory - it could get reinvested back into the future of the team. Of course, that’s also exactly what we heard from the front office and ownership prior to this season, and jumping ship immediately to save the last third of that chunk just seems very, very Miami Marlins-y.
(I can only imagine the dent in the attendance numbers at GABP over the last two months if the Reds dump any number of those players mentioned.)
If you’re the Reds, that pretty much means your scenario is this:
You’re in last place, but with a team that has the kind of legitimate potential to rip off a string of good baseball, even if it takes them more than 100 games to fully click. Nobody who’s about to be a free agent is a major trade chip league-wide at the moment, so you’re not missing a chance at a franchise-altering haul by trading them - and if someone truly comes calling with a deal you can’t refuse for one of them, you can still make that deal without it causing a domino effect. Money, which you’ve hoarded with minuscule relative payrolls for years, isn’t really an issue, especially when looking at what’s on the books beyond 2019. And your fans, who’ve been waiting forever to see something other than ‘5th out of 5’ next to the Reds name in the standings, are so damn incredibly ready to see some wins on the ledger.
Why not keep them? Why not see if this currently underperforming club can ever click?
Maybe, just maybe, it means a season that results in more wins than losses, something that might well resonate with the likes of Jose Peraza, Eugenio Suarez, Luis Castillo, and Amir Garrett, four players who are big parts of the team’s future and haven’t seen anything other than copious losing their entire Reds careers. It could cost the Reds a few spots in the draft order, and the resulting amount of bonus pool money they’d be allotted to sign their next wave of prospects, but the way in which they structured this last year means they’ve still got an amply-stocked farm system as-is. And really, if you think about it, there isn’t a single prospect on that amply-stocked farm who would be blocked by keeping any of the current Reds, since even Santillan, Taylor Trammell, and the likes seem like 2020 call-ups at the earliest at this point.
The time to put some actual wins on the board obviously looked like it was long overdue to the Reds front office this winter, or they wouldn’t have splashed money and brought in the players they did. They, and we, all hoped it would happen from the outset of the 2019 season, though that obviously hasn’t yet played out. Still, it sure seems like that’s a legitimate possibility at some point during the 2019 season, and it still won’t mortgage the future to give it a chance to play out.
And who knows, they could even have a 2007 Colorado Rockies type miracle in them at some point in August...